2019’s Word of the Year is Inclusive, Not Divisive



Have you heard that Merriam-Webster chose the word they as the “Word of the Year”? And that it was chosen as the “Word of the Decade” by the American Dialect Society? We are not surprised. You probably recall that we ran three articles in July-August 2019 discussing the singular they (How Did They Get in Here?, How Can They Be Singular?, and Singular They Part III.)

We covered a lot of ground in those articles, from displeasure with writers simply being careless about subject-verb agreement, to the fact that singular they has been used by famous writers for more than 600 years, especially with pronouns considered to be singular, such as each, everyone, and everybody. But it’s still no excuse for carelessness, especially when a simple recasting of a sentence solves the problem. For example, “Each side in the condo fight has spent more than $350,000 on their campaigns …,” a sentence we found in a major metropolitan newspaper. Simply replace their campaigns with its campaign.

We also talked about what was once considered an acceptable replacement for the gender-specific pronouns he or she in sentences such as “Every student has done his homework.” Writing this sentence as “Every student has done his or her homework,” while grammatically acceptable, suffers from being cumbersome. It also disregards the LGBTQ community and others who choose to be identified by gender-neutral pronouns such as they (subject case) or them (object case) over the gender-binary, masculine-feminine pronouns he/himshe/her.

We agree and support this use of singular they when a sentence cannot be rewritten in gender-neutral terms or when persons prefer they/them. We also wonder if a grammatical solution might be to embrace a new pronoun for this purpose. What do you think of shey—a word inclusive of heshe, and (sort of) they?

* * * * *

Let’s talk about one more thing today: What’s the proper pronunciation of the word divisive? This one could become the Word of the Year for 2020 considering the nature of American politics today (sadly, maybe world politics as well). Have you noticed some pundits pronouncing the second syllable with a short i, as in division? Does that sound a bit, um, pretentious to you?

We checked some of our office dictionaries. Going back as far as 1941, each of them contains only one pronunciation—long i, as in divide. It’s not until the 1999 edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary that we see the notation “also ĭ,” which to us simply acknowledges that some people say it that way.

Charles Harrington Elster mentions in his The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations that he first noticed this nonstandard mispronunciation in George H. W. Bush’s inaugural address in 1989. Within fifteen years it had begun to infect otherwise careful speakers. Elster suggests the short-i pronunciation may have “the my-pronunciation’s-better-than-yours appeal” for some persons, but careful speakers will continue to pronounce the second syllable with a long i. As careful speakers, so will we.

Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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14 Comments on 2019’s Word of the Year is Inclusive, Not Divisive

14 responses to “2019’s Word of the Year is Inclusive, Not Divisive”

  1. Anne Tjaden says:

    I appreciate you dealing with contemporary issues such as the growing use of singular “they.” An example was used somewhere, maybe by you, that was disturbing to me.

    It was regarding an Uber message. “Juan will be arriving at the prescribed time. They will be driving a Honda Accord.” My first inclination was to want to write to Uber indicating I would not enter a car with two males.

    In my mind “they” indicates more than one in each and every instance and I would like to see it remain that way. Using an alternative word such as “shey” is not my preference but it’s better than turning “they” into a singular!

    • That’s a good example of the sort of confusion that can arise with the use of they when referring to an individual. (It’s not our example, by the way.)

    • Alan Terlep says:

      English has already transitioned a formerly plural pronoun to singular for social reasons. Grammar did not collapse when “you” became the second-person singular pronoun, and I suspect we’ll do just fine with “they.” I’ll suggest that it’s more appropriate to apply a practice with historical roots in the language than to attempt to invent a brand-new personal pronoun.

  2. V J Spindler III says:

    I never liked “his or her,” and tried to reconstruct a sentence, when writing, to avoid “they” as a singular pronoun. Speaking is another issue unless it’s a prepared text.

    I definitely agree with your take on the pronunciation of “divisive.”

  3. Diane Schaefer says:

    “ What do you think of shey—a word inclusive of he, she, and (sort of) they?”
    Why not use “per,” short for person. This is a word used by a female dystopian fiction writer (Ursula Le Guin).

  4. Jerry Dobb says:

    Would you please weigh in on the pronunciation of the word “often”? When I grew up in the 60s, I was taught to pronounce it with a silent “t”—and that was how EVERYONE said it. Now it seems that the majority of people pronounce it “off-ten.” It drives me a little crazy. Has that now become an accepted or even the preferred pronunciation?

  5. paul frazier says:

    Since “you” is both singular and plural and gender-neutral, an effort to keep pushing for “they” and “them” as good alternatives to the his/her dilemma – as has been done in this blog – is quite welcomed.

    For whatever reasons creating a new word doesn’t seem to be the American way. Wasn’t there a contest years ago about a “new ” pronoun that didn’t seem to gain much traction?

    Keep up the good work!

  6. P. Dunn says:

    This is really great! I just taught they/them as acceptable singular pronouns to my students yesterday. I am excited to forward this article to them as further evidence that America is evolving in a non-divisive direction.

  7. Don says:

    In the sentence, Every student has done …., why not rewrite as, All students have done … ? Then the singular they/their problem does not arise.

  8. John Hutchens says:

    I can’t stand the singular “they.” I love the suggestion of using “shey” instead.

  9. Dan Curnyn says:

    Does the following sentence restrict the assistance to the “trial thereof?”

    The county attorney of any county may, under the direction of the district court, procure such assistance in any investigation or appearance or the trial of any person charged with a crime which is a felony, as he may deem necessary for the trial thereof.

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